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Buddhism is Rational


Vol. IX, No. 4, 1963

          Buddhism is not a religion in the sense in which that word is commonly understood, for it is not a system of faith and worship. In Buddhism there is no such thing as belief in a body of dogmas which have to be taken on faith, such as belief in a supreme God, a creator of the universe, certain doctrines concerning an immortal soul, a personal saviour and prophets and a hierarchy of spiritual beings such as angels and archangels who are supposed to carry out the will of the supreme deity. It is true that there are different types of Devas or spiritual beings mentioned in Buddhism but they are beings like ourselves, subject to the same natural law of cause and effect. They are not immortal; they do not control the destiny of mankind. The Buddha does not ask us to accept belief in any supernatural agency or anything that cannot be tested by experience.

          Buddhism begins as a search for truth. It does not begin with unfounded assumptions concerning any God or First Cause, and it does not claim to present the whole truth of the absolute beginning and end of mankind's spiritual pilgrimage in the form of a divine revelation. The Buddha himself searched and discovered with direct insight the nature of the cosmos, the causes of its arising and of its passing away, and the real cause of suffering and a way in which it could be brought to an end for the sake of all living beings. Having done so he proclaimed the principles on which he had conducted his research, so that all who wished to do so could follow his system and know the final truth themselves.

          It was for this reason that the Buddha was able to make a statement that was entirely different from that of all other religious leaders of his time who said, "you must have absolute faith in me and in what I tell you", whereas the Buddha said, "It is natural that doubt should arise in mind. I tell you not to believe merely because it has been handed down by tradition, or because it had been said by some great personage in the past, or because it is commonly believed, or because others have told it to you, or even because I myself have said it. But whatever you are asked to believe, ask yourself whether it is true in the light of your experience, whether it is in conformity with reason and good principles and whether it is conducive to the highest good and welfare of all beings, and only if it passes this test, should you accept it and act in accordance with it." (Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya).

          This statement made by the Buddha two thousand five hundred years ago, still retains its original force. It is a statement of the scientific principle of reasoning and also a definition of the rationality of Buddhism. The follower of the Buddha is invited to doubt, until he has examined all the evidence for the basic facts of the teaching and has himself experimented with them to see if they be true. Having proved by these means that they are true he is able to accept them. One of the qualities of the Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha, is that it is "Ehi passiko" — "That which invites everyone to come and see for himself".

                   The Buddha taught man to rely upon themselves in order to achieve their own deliverance, and not to look to any external saviour. He never puts himself forward as a mediator between us and our final deliverance. But he can tell us what to do, because he has done it himself and so knows the way; but unless we ourselves act, the Buddha cannot take us to our goal. Though we may "take refuge in the Buddha— Buddham saranam gacchami as the Buddhist phrase in the simple ceremony of pledging ourselves to live a righteous life, it must not be with any blind faith that he can save us. He can point out the way; he can tell us of its difficulties and of the beauties which we shall find as we tread the way; but he cannot tread it for us. We must tread the way ourselves.

          "Abide with oneself as an island, with oneself as a refuge; abide with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as a refuge. Seek not for external refuge. (Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya).

          No one can purify or defile another. One is directly responsible for one's own purification or defilement. The Buddha says: "By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled; by oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself - No one purifies another." (Dhammapada Verse 165)


          In Buddhism mere belief is replaced by confidence (Saddha) based on knowledge of truth. Reason enables one to arrange and systematize knowledge in order to find truth while confidence gives him determination to be true to his high ideals. Confidence or faith becomes superstition when it is not accompanied by reason but reason without confidence would turn a man into a machine without feeling or enthusiasm for his ideals. Reason seeks disinterestedly to realise truth, but confidence moulds a man's character and gives him strength of will to break all the barriers which hinder his progress in achieving his aims. While reason makes a man rejoice in truths he has already discovered , confidence gives him fresh courage and helps him onward to further conquests, to aspire to work strenuously for the realisation of what has not yet been realised. It is this saddha which has the power to transform cold abstract rationalism into a philosophy of fervent hope to love and compassion. It is also this saddha which is the basis of loving devotion to the great teacher, the Buddha, his teaching and his holy order.

         The object of devotion is known in Buddhism as Tisarana the three-fold-Refuges, comprising the Buddha, The Enlightened One, Dhamma, His doctrine and Samgha, the Order of His Noble Disciples. Every Buddhist religious meeting begins with recitation in Pali of the formula of the three Refuges:

                  Buddham Saranam gacchami - I go to the Buddha for refuge.

                  Dhammam Saranam gacchami - I go to the Doctrine for refuge.

                  Samgham saranam gacchami - I go to the Holy Order for refuge.

          These three are also known among Buddhists as Tiratana - theTriple-Gem or the Threefold - Jewels. The Pali word ratana means that which pleases or that which gives delight, pleasure. The Jewels such as gold, silver and precious stones of all kinds are called ratana because they give delight, pleasure but worldly, material pleasure. Whereas the other threefold Jewels, Buddha, Dhamma and Samgha can give humanity real spiritual pleasure and therefore the Buddhists take them not only as jewels but also as their guides and refuges against the evil powers of greed, ill-will, delusion, etc.

          The Buddhist take refuge in the Buddha because He had boundless compassion for man's weakness, sorrow, disappointment and suffering, and because He found for all beings the path of deliverance by His own ceaseless effort through long and painful struggle. He had given men great encouragement and inspiration to to fight against evil until they overcome it.

         Secondly, the Buddhist takes refuge in the Dhamma because it enables one who follows it to attain the end of all dissatisfaction and suffering through the attainment of enlightenment, perfect wisdom and perfect equanimity. The best way to follow the Dhamma is to practise it in one's daily life. As we are all subject to birth, old age, sickness, dissatisfaction, sorrow and death, we are all sick people. The Buddha is compared to an experienced and skilful physician while the Dhamma is compared with the proper medicine. However efficient the physician may be and however wonderful the medicine may be, we cannot be cured unless and until we take the medicine ourselves. Realisation is possible only through practice. Practice of the Dhamma is the only way in which one can truly express one's gratitude and veneration for the Buddha who, with infinite compassion, showed us the way to the end of all suffering. This fact was well illustrated by the story of a Bhikkhu who knew that the Buddha was about to pass away and yet remained in his cell and spent most of his time in meditation while the other disciples went to see and pay their respects to the Buddha. When this matter was brought to the notice of Him, the Buddha sent for the Bhikkhu and asked him why he had behaved in such a peculiar manner. That Bhikkhu replied: "Lord, I know that you will pass away three months hence, and I thought that the best way to show respect to the Teacher is to attain Arahatship, sainthood, by practising the Dhamma even before your passing away."

          The Buddha praised the Bhikkhu and said:— "He who loves me should emulate this Bhikkhu. He honours me best who practises my teaching best."

          Lastly, the Buddhists takes refuge in the Samgha because the Samgha is the living stream through which the Dhamma flows to humanity. Samgha literally means group, congregation and is the name for the community of the Noble ones (Ariya-Samgha) who have reached the Aryan noble stages of which the last is perfect sainthood (Arahatta). It is also the name for the community of Buddhist monks (Bhikkhus) who are striving to attain Arahatship by following the Dhamma. The Samgha is the point - at which the Dhamma makes direct contact with humanity, it is the bridge between living man and absolute truth. The Buddha greatly emphasised the importance of the Samgha as a necessary institution for the well-being of mankind, for if there had not been the Samgha the teaching would have been a mere legend and tradition after the demise of the Buddha. It is the Samgha who has preserved not only the word of the Master but also the unique spirit of the noble teaching since the Master's Passing away.


          It may here be mentioned that there has been a common question asked by non-Buddhists as to whether there is any worshipping of images amongst Buddhists. The answer is this that the true Buddhists know who and what the Buddha is. They do not worship an image or pray to it expecting any worldly boons and sensual pleasures while still living and a pleasurable state of existence, like heaven, after death. The images before which they kneel are representations only of one, whom, because he, through his own effort and wisdom, discovered the way to real peace and made it known to beings, they pay their homage in gratitude. The offerings they make are but a symbol of their reverence for the Buddha and a means of concentrating their minds on the significance and the truth of the words they are reciting. Just as people love to see the portrait of one dear to them when separation by death of distance has deprived them of their presence, so do Buddhists love to have before them the presentation of their master, because this presentation enables them to think of the virtues of Him, His love and compassion for all beings and the doctrine he taught.

          The words they recite are meditations and not prayers. They recite to themselves the virtues of the Buddha, doctrine and His holy Order so that they may acquire such mental dispositions as are favourable to the attainment of similar qualities in their own minds, in however small a degree. The things they offer as they kneel are object lessons in the truth that they are trying to realise by meditation on the lesson that those oblations teach. This is one of these meditations used in the offering of flowers:

         "These flowers I offer in memory of the Buddha, the Holy one, the supremely-Enlightened One. These flowers are now fair in form, glorious, sweet in scent. Yet all will have soon passed away, withered their fair form, faded the bright hues and weak their scent. Even so is it with all conditioned things, subject to change, suffering and unreal. Realising his way or attain Nibbana, perfect Peace, which is real and everlasting.

         The Bodhi-tree is only the symbol of the supreme enlightenment which the Buddha finally attained under it. The external forms of homage, however, are not absolutely necessary for an intellectual who can easily focus his attention and visualize the Buddha, but they are very useful for an average man because they tend to concentrate his attention towards the Buddha.


          It may also here be mentioned that there are no prayers in Buddhism. Instead of prayers there are meditations for purifying the mind thereby to realise truth. According to Buddhism the Universe is governed by everlasting, unchangeable natural laws of righteousness and not by any god (in the sense of a supreme Being who can hear and answer prayers). These laws are so perfect that no one, no god, can change them by praising them or crying against them. Sin is the direct consequence of man's ignorance of these laws. Sin begets sorrow. This is eternal sequence.

          Buddhists do not believe in any Creater God who has made his laws so imperfectly as to require continual ratification at the prayers of men. If one believes that the universe is governed not by eternal laws but by a changeable and continually changing God one will have to try and persuade Him to make it better. That means that one does not believe His will is always righteous, and that He has wrath to be deprecated; He has mercy to be aroused; He has partiality towards one. But to the Buddhist the laws of righteousness which govern the universe are the same for all, the same for ever. A man's duty therefore is not to break them or not to try to change them by prayers or by any means but to try to understand them and live in harmony with them.

          Right through the Buddha's teaching repeated stress is laid on such attributes as self-reliance, resolution. Buddhism makes man stand on his own feet and rouses his self-confidence and energy. The Buddha says: (in the Dhammapada).

                   "Energy is the road to deathless realm;

                  But sloth and indolence the road to death."

          "It is through unshaken perseverance, O bhikkhus, that I have reached the light, through unceasing effort that I have reached the peace supreme. If you also, O bhikkhus, will strive unceasingly, you too will within a short time, reach the highest goal to holiness by understanding and realising it yourselves."

          And the Buddha (last words were: "Strive for your goal with earnestness."

          Thus, the Buddha again and again reminded his followers that they have to rely on themselves and their own exertions and that there is nobody, either in heaven or earth, who can help them from the result of their past evil deeds. "These evil deeds were only done by you, not by your parents, friends or advisers, and you yourself will reap the painful results."

          Understanding that neither God nor ceremonies can help or save him, the true Buddhist feels compelled to rely on his own efforts and thereby he gains self-confidence. The tendency to rely on God or any other imaginary power weakens man's confidence in his own power and his sense of self-responsibility, while the tendency to trust in own's own power strengthens self-confidence and the sense of self-responsibility. Mental, mental, moral or spiritual progress is possible only where there is freedom of thought. Where dogmatism prevails there will be no mental progress. Freedom of thinking leads to mental vigour and progress, while blind faith in authority leads to stagnation, spiritual lethargy.

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